Direct Action
Tips the Scales in Panama

Wounaan and Embera are a big step closer to formal land titles in Panama

Hundreds of Wounaan, Embera and their allies blocked the entrances to Panama's Ministry of the Environment (MiAmbiente) for three days. This peaceful demonstration was the response to years of having their ancestral land rights ignored and obstructed by MiAmbiente. 

The sit-in began at 4am on Monday morning in Panama City, Panama. By Tuesday afternoon the director of MiAmbiente sat down to negotiate with the traditional leaders, declaring that he would remove MiAmbiente's objection to two indigenous land-rights petitions - and likely seven more - some of which have been held up in red tape for nearly a decade.

Miambiente's approval of these titles is key, because most of the remaining untitled collective lands in Panama have some form of overlap with protected areas.

There is still a long way to go. Other communities with overlaps will need MiAmbiente's OK, and the national lands agency ANATI needs to complete all of them, including these. But the past few days have seen a major step forward, where taking action as a united front has been key.

The communities of Maje Chimán and Platanares/Rio Hondo have been fighting for legal recognition of their lands for over thirty years. While MiAmbiente's role is merely to give it's "OK" for titling, in recent years MiAmbiente has been actively hindering the titling process due to overlaps with protected areas. All this while MiAmbiente has approved the transfer of large swathes of public land to investors in record time. 

Recognized indigenous land in eastern Panama

Recognized indigenous land in eastern Panama and lands that still need titles 

Indigenous lands approved by MiAmbiente on March 13, 2018

Indigenous lands expected to be approved by MiAmbiente by March 16, 2108

MiAmbiente has objected to indigenous land rights in protected areas, despite the fact that the indigenous communities predate the protected areas, and overwhelming evidence points to the fact that indigenous land titling benefits the environment.

"We remain here. We are staying here until they give their approval for the indigenous communities to have their collective land title." -Diogracio Puchicama, Chief of the Wounaan General Congress, explained to the media and government officials. After years of deadlock, his leadership paid off; finally breaking the standstill that has kept these three communities and dozens of others from titling their ancestral lands.

En Majé Embera Ella Drua the community has dedicated itself to protecting their lands and culture and sharing their vision of sustainable future  with visitors to encourage respect for the environment and indigenous cultures in their village and beyond.

MiAmbiente's refusal to make a decision left the three communities in limbo, ostensibly because their land claims overlap the Maje Water Reserve (Reserva Hidrológica del Majé) and the Panama Bay Wetlands Wildlife Reserve (Humedal Bahía de Panamá). Yet it is precisely these overlaps that should have MiAmbiente rushing to approve their petition for the title. 

MiAmbiente, terribly understaffed, does not have the capacity to protect the national lands it already has under its purview. The two protected areas in question have been invaded by illegal loggers and ranchers who have polluted the waters and removed ancient stands of valuable rosewood and mahogany. 

These communities have watched as illegal deforestation swept through the unprotected "protected areas," and impacted their safety and livelihoods. Each dry season brings more people illegally destroying their forest homes, meanwhile the government of Panama demonstrates the bare minimum of will or capacity to enforce the rule of law and protect its people and environment.

Because they do not have official titles to their lands, the communities lack the full authority to ensure that these criminals don't invade their lands; however, even without formal titles the communities continue to fight back through monitoring and community patrols.

The situation for communities that have titles is different. Satellite data demonstrates that indigenous communities with title to their land often more effective than the government at protecting forests. This should not be surprising; not only do indigenous communities have deep cultural ties to the forest, they depend on these forests for survival and have far more capacity to monitor and defend them. Currently Panama has approximately 300 park rangers for all of its protected areas (for comparison Yellowstone National Park alone has 770 park rangers). 

By working with indigenous communities, MiAmbiente would be able to leverage the support of thousands of people determined to safeguard their forests, as well as several dozen indigenous technicians who are well-versed in modern GPS, drone and remote sensing technology. Many of these technicians have been trained and supported by Rainforest Foundation US and partners such as FAO; and in fact, regional MiAmbiente staff have been informally asking for technical help from these indigenous monitors for several years.

"We are tired of (MiAmbiente) saying that they are protecting the forests because it's not true. It’s us, it’s the indigenous communities are really protecting the forest. And the illegal squatters coming in that are destroying the forest."

By holding up their land titles MiAmbiente was alienating those who should be its closest allies and losing the opportunity to create a collaborative model of forest management. It is also flouting international law especially because each of the indigenous land claims predate the creation of the national park. 

As Cameron Ellis, of Rainforest Foundation explains, "This shouldn't be an obstacle. In Panama, indigenous communities have a better conservation track record than the protected areas. MiAmbiente is too understaffed to do its job. Why not join forces to protect both Panama's natural and cultural heritage at the same time?"